Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: The Daylight War

The Daylight War
The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, the second book in the demon cycle, The Desert Spear, was remarkable because it managed to recast the events in the first book in a way that significantly changed my perspectives about the main character while also successfully advancing the overall story. It was a tremendous, George R.R. Martin-ian achievement, and I really really liked it.

Consequently, I had incredibly high hopes that this book would do the same.

It it utterly fails to do so.

Spoilers for all three books from here on out.
The major thing that happens in book two is that we realize that Jardir betrayed Arlen because his wife, Inevera, told him to. This revelation, and the added detail of just how awful Jardir feels about the whole thing, turns him into a sympathetic character where before he was just an asshole.

And it is kind of implied by the fact that Inevera is the principal character in this book, that a similar kind of revelation was waiting for her. And the main failing of this book is that such a revelation never occurs. She told him to betray Arlen. She doesn't have a particularly good reason for it, and while knowing some more of her back story makes her more sympathetic than she was, there isn't anything giant or earth shattering about her story arc*.

Meanwhile, since the book makes it so incredibly clear that the demons are the real enemy, the inevitable clash between Jardir and Arlen just felt forced and lame. They are both sympathetic characters, so I approached the thing with annoyance rather than interest about who would survive. Oh yeah, and the answer to that question is left as a cliffhanger.

Now, one should give credit where credit is due. Peter V. Brett is an amazing writer. These books beyond readable; they are downright unputdownable. The characters are great; there's lots of sex, violence, badassery, triumphs of the human spirit, etc; the plot moves at a steady pace, with a healthy selection of bad characters turning out to be good, and good characters delivering just dessert to the bad characters that stay bad. Plus I absolutely adore Renna, and I really liked her relationship with Arlen in this book.

Bottom line, I still recommend this series, fairly heartily, but this was weaker than it could have been.

* What's that you say? Her magic truth telling dice tell her that Deliverers are made not born? I'm shocked. Shocked, I say, particularly since this has.......been a theme of the novels since the very beginning.

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Review: The Theory of Poker

The Theory of Poker
The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent introduction into the mechanics of good poker play.
The explanations are clear and detailed, and the writing is actually pretty engaging for a two hundred book that is basically a lecture about odds ratios.

There were a few minor things that bothered me about this book. In order to have the aforementioned discussion about odds ratios you have to know what the probability of various things happening are. For certain poker events, you can calculate these things readily.* For others you can't, and yet the author just states these things as given. In other words, I lost count of the time an example includes assume you know there's a 30% chance your opponent will beat you." How the #$%^ am I supposed to know this?!?!?! I found this somewhat frustrating.**

Secondly, the reason I picked up this book is that I was playing a fair bit of Texas Hold 'em at the time, and I was interested in improving my game. Certainly, the concepts presented here are extraordinarily valuable regardless of which game one is playing, and in particular for Hold'em, but, the examples across lots of different games got to be kind of annoying. Seriously, who the #@$% plays 7 Card Razz?

But again, these are minor complaints. I got from this book exactly what I needed: the fundamental mathematical concepts behind good poker play, and I can actually say it has worked for me.***

* Wikipedia has a fabulous article on Texas Hold 'em probabilities amongst others.
** I am being too hard on the book. The author says repeatedly, that the estimates of opponents hand strength are for didactic convenience, and that in actual play you attempt to glean this knowledge from learning how your opponent plays and reading their hand strength, the author also talks some about how to do this. Nevertheless, I found it frustrating.
*** By which I mean I have finished "in the money" in the last three poker tournaments I've played in.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Review: Detroit: An American Autopsy

Detroit: An American Autopsy
Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At some point when I was a kid, I decided that I wanted to be a reporter. I'm sure this was a reaction to too many detective novels, but at the time it seemed like a perfect fit: I would be kind of like a detectives, uncovering crime and corruption lurking in the seedy underbelly of the city, without having to walk a beat, get shot at, etc. It was a revelation, a clear path for me to follow, and of course, I told my parents about it. I think it might have been the only time* when my parents flat out laughed at me. "You hate cities," they pointed out, "you don't like talking to people." Although, I probably pouted about it at the time, they were not wrong, and I am tremendously glad I found a different path...

I like to think, though, that if I had been temperamentally suited to being a journalist, I would have been something like Charlie Le Duff. Fearless, determined, able to use a mixture of wits, detective power, and sneakiness, to get at the root cause of the ills in america.

There are some problems with this book. There are some factual inconsistencies****. LeDuff has a weird perspective on race and privilege that ranges from vaguely insensitive to downright offensive.

But overall this is a fascinating read about how greed, incompetence, and corruption (from all sides: absenteeist workers, incompetent executives, and corrupt politicians) can destroy an empire, and how the honest, hardworking people at all levels suffer as a result.

* This includes a surprisingly lengthy tolerance of my declaration that I was going to be a veterinarian. This was a clear rebellion against my parents no pets rule, but their forbearance was impressive**.
** The veterinarian stratagem came to a spectacular close when my mother (the most stringent enforcer of the pet ban) strongly suggested that if I wanted to be a veterinarian I really ought to examine and dissect the dead squirrel that had been hit by a car in our neighborhood, and I squeamishly refused.***
*** Never play poker with my mother.
**** According to the epilogue (uh, spoiler, i guess?) the city executive gets fired for covering up theft of property, but I thought the who reason Charlie Le Duff was pissed at him was because he was overly zealously pursuing the theft of property, while simultaneously mismanaging the departments resources?

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this might be the great American Novel. A Game of Thrones simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the American obsession with bravery and heroism; it interrogates the trend of the powerful towards corruption, and even has time to explore the nuances of privilege.

What's really amazing with this book is how effectively it subverts the tropes of modern fantasy, and at the same time revels in them. There are no particular heroes, barely a quest to be found, and the dragons don't show up until literally the last page At the same time we get heroic showdowns*, a fabulous detour through of a mountaintop fortress, and a creepy undercurrent of the wonders yet to behold in this world.

And there are wonderful characters, pithy dialogue, some well written battle scenes, and lots of sex, to boot!

* just not necessarily between the people we would choose to face off...

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Towers of Midnight

Towers of Midnight
Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really really liked The Gathering Storm, and so I was super enthusiastic about Towers of Midnight. Sadly I didn't like nearly as well as the previous one.

Brandon Sanderson continues to do some things very well.
One of Robert Jordan's major weaknesses was in buildup*. Very frequently the big finale of a book just happened sort of abruptly and arbitrarily. Conversely, the slow build to the conclusion of a few of the storylines here is very satisfying. This is particularly true of Perrins Arc: the grindingly slow progress of Perrin vs. the Whitecloaks; Perrin vs. the Wolf Dream, and finally Perrin vs. Slayer build and build until they come to an epic conclusion**.

And the fights are great! I loved Mat vs. The Golam; and I really loved the multiway Tel'aran'rhiod/Wolf Dream/Holy @#$%, there incredibly powerful assassins in the white tower battle***, ****.

Honestly the biggest weakness in this book was the actual Epic Finale. We have been waiting for Mat's return to the Ael/Eel'finn for eight 1000 page books: It really deserved to a) have been more than 60 pages long and b) be more than just a kind of lame fight scene*****. The ultimate reveal was cute enough, i suppose, but this is one area where I would have most like Robert Jordan's more assured handling of Mat's roguish nature.

But, all in all, it was a very satisfying penultimate volume. On to A Memory of Light!

* Yes, yes some things were built up for Books on end, that's not really what I'm talking about.
** Ok, maybe a little too much. I did get kind of tired after the fourth Perrin vs. the Whitecloaks standoff.
*** Egwene continues to be a bad-ass. I really am enjoying Brandon Sanderson's handling of her.
**** Can Brandon Sanderson write Star Wars VII? I would pay good money to see that.
***** Although I did appreciate that the inside of the Tower of Ghenji is the random room puzzle that's been in every top down scrolling rpg video game since Final Fantasy II.

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Review: The Rook

The Rook
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't know how sophisticated Goodreads' add generation is, but they certainly work on me. I would never have even heard of it if it hadn't shown up here, and I was intrigued enough by the blurb to pick it up.

I'm glad I did, too, although I can't say I loved it. The premise is very compelling--a young woman with no memory wakes up in a park surrounded by dead bodies and discovers in her pocket a note from her past, obliterated, self explaining what's going on.*

The counterpoint between the old self and the new self was delightful. Apart from that the book is just so so. It has the usual modern urban fantasy hijinks: A secret governmental organization that protect us from supernatural threats**, a hodgepodge of barely believable superpowers, and lots of quirky asides about the bureaucracy and mundanity of both these things.

These are the same old tricks as you will find in the Dresden Files, or the Laundry, and these are no better or worse than the ones you'd find there, which is frankly this books downfall. Apart from the conceit mentioned above the book really does nothing to distinguish itself.

* Spoiler alert she's the member of a secret government organization that protects us from supernatural threats.
** I hate this device, by the way. See *.

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: Dauntless

Dauntless by Jack Campbell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dauntless is a perfectly serviceable, good-not-great, sci-fi naval adventure.

I rather liked the conceit: the military hero long thought dead is found in cryogenically frozen in a survival pod, only to suddenly find hims self in command of the fleet, deep into enemy territory, and surrounded by people he can barely trust.

The themes* are presented in a somewhat heavy handed manner, but the plot moves quickly, the narrative voice is strong, and there are enough hooks for the future development of the universe that i'm interested in reading more.

* Military discipline is Important! Follow the chain of command! Respect your commanding officers! Don't fight stupidly! (Wait, one of these things is not like the others...)

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